So you’re an open water swimmer? Perhaps you just need some information to help you get started? Well you’ve come to the right place. Our comprehensive beginners guide will explain what you need to know and point out some safety tips.
When open water swimming in lakes, rivers, reservoirs, lochs, or the ocean. A limit many people experience as beginners, is anxiety. This can be anxiety around the openness of open water swimming and the environment, for others, it can be a shock of the chilly water. And for a small few, it could be fear of the unknown around what is lurking beneath the depths. Should that be some stray vegetation, or even small critters.
We’re here to show you that these fears can be overcome. Allowing you to fully experience and revel in purely the benefits of open water swimming. Swimming in open water can be stress-free, and has been known to even reduce stress in some cases. This guide will help you embrace the warm feeling of connecting with nature and chase the thrill and rush of plunging deep into ice cold water, all while staying safe.
Swimming equipment you’ll need
Tow float - One of the first things you will need is a tow float (or inflatable dry bag). These are essential pieces of safety kit. Whether a newbie or an experienced swimmer, tow floats massively help lifeguards with spotting you from a distance, and can be used to store items when necessary. Find out what the best dry bags and tow floats are here.
Wetsuit - At certain open water swimming venues, wetsuits are only required in cold water temperatures. For beginners getting started with open water swimming, wetsuits provide a good opportunity to get used to the cold. Wetsuits are also buoyant, and can help you to float if struggling, furthermore, by allowing a small amount of water into the suit to quickly heat up and act as insulation, a wetsuit can also provide another layer of protection from cold conditions. Usually, most venues have wetsuits that you can buy or rent, but if you want a more personalised touch, visit the wetsuit brand website to find the right fit for you. If your breathing feels slightly restricted in a wetsuit, this is to be expected, once you are in the water, the suit will loosen slightly.
Goggles - Another much-needed piece of equipment for the open water enthusiast is a couple of sound, water tight, pairs of goggles. Its important to have two pairs of goggles, one with tinted lenses for bright and sunny swims. And another pair of clear, see-through goggles (polarised) for cloudier, murkier weather conditions. To make sure your goggles stay attached, and in place, fit your swimming cap over the tip of your goggle straps.
Insulating clothes - By preparing beforehand, you can save yourself some pain after your swim. Experienced swimmers bring insulated clothes (including an insulated hat) to slip into afterwards, as it is important to slowly warm up following open water swimming.
Swim cap - Swim caps are not only important if you wish to swim streamlined, they are also great tools for increasing visibility on the open water. Bright swim caps are designed with open water swimmers in mind, as they can be more easily spotted from a distance. Swim caps also provide an added layer of insulation to keep your head warmer on your swim, whether you decide to go for a general swim cap, or a more specialised insulated swim cap.
Boots and gloves - Thermal gloves and boots can be a great addition to any beginner wishing to add an additional layer of protection from the cold water.
Nose clips - Nose clips prevent water entering the nostril, and will prevent you from accidentally inhaling salty sea water - Yuck!
Ear plugs - A quality pair of ear plugs will reduce the chances of your ears becoming infected.
Flask of hot drink - An insulated flask will allow you to bring your favourite brew from the comfort of your home, to be waiting for at the end of a tough swim. Whether that be tea or coffee, it always helps to have a refreshing beverage waiting to greet you. Also, it will help to regulate your body temperature.
Energy gels - Looking to complete a longer race than usual? Need that added boost of energy? Energy gels can be carried in an inflatable dry bag and can be accessed in the water to give you the energy boost you need at just the right time. It's always useful to have an energy gel with you.
Safety features - Safety is paramount when engaging in open water swimming, therefore two quintessential items everybody should carry are a whistle and a light. You never know when you might need them, as they can attract attention when needed.
Transitioning from the pool to the outdoors
It's important before conducting any open water activities that you are a competent swimmer in an indoor swimming pool environment. Out on the open water, conditions can change in an instant. A well planned 1 mile swim could easily turn to a 3 mile trek. Therefore, it's important in a swimming pool that you are confident that you can swim two or three times the distance you aim to do in the open water, to make up for any unexpected phenomenon to occur.
The swimming pool, although a good place to practice technique and endurance; is not the real thing. It is very different switching from a closed swimming pool to the open water in the wild.The water is colder, you lose the ability to reach for the sides of the pool, there are currents and the water is choppy. These are just some of the factors that you have to bear in mind. Therefore, it’s important that you are adaptable, and this can take some time to accomplish. Just as you initially had an instructor to teach you the basics of swimming in a pool, you may need a new instructor to help you master the basics of swimming outdoors and in open water.
Preparing for your outdoor swim
Swim with others
Sometimes when swimming on the open water, things have a habit of not going exactly to plan. Therefore, it can be beneficial in multiple ways to have someone with you swimming, or at least spotting you from shore. Whether this is your first time, or you are experienced, open water swimming is at the mercy of the elements, and nature can be unpredictable, therefore you should prepare for any eventuality. And having somebody with you is much safer.
But we understand that as a beginner, you may not know any fellow open water enthusiasts that are able to come along with you. Joining a club is a proven way to make friends with like-minded individuals, develop confidence and swim safer with others.
Swimming clubs aren’t for you? You could attend an open water swimming centre. At a centre you can swim along a predetermined route and there are lifeguards around keeping an eye on swimmers. May and October are common times of year these groups commence, as it falls in line with advice that beginners should swim during summer months. Those who swim during fall, and winter months are more experienced, and regularly expose themselves to harsh conditions.
It’s crucial you do your own research before heading out. Vital things to take note of are the depth of water and water temperatures. As well as any common or potential hazards, or any wildlife you may cross paths with. For instance, check weather forecasts, in case of winds, torrential rain, storms or any other conditions that could put you in danger. Furthermore, check your swim location online to see if there are any strong currents or areas you cannot swim.
Upon arrival at the open swim location, look around for any watercraft in the area and identify how far you would like to swim, the duration of your swim and the route in which you will take. Devise a mental map of any buoys or recognisable points that will signify when you need to turn, along your route.
As in any sports, warming up before you take part helps to reduce the likelihood of injuries occurring, gets your blood flowing and increases flexibility. Warms ups are important particularly for open swimming as the cold water can seize the muscles and increase the chances of mid-swim cramps.
Getting in the water
It can be cold while swimming in open water. Also, it can be dangerous to jump straight in, due to the risk of rocks underneath the water, and because the cold will shock your body. The best practice we recommend is to lower your body into the water gradually, or wade into the water slowly.
As you slowly enter the water, and the water reaches your chest. You may feel slight discomfort and the chest area tightening. This is expected as normal, and will ease once you’re in the water and swimming around. Once you have entered the water, splash your face and submerge your head. Once you’re comfortable and have adapted to the conditions, you’re ready to begin your swim.
To get familiar with the cold water temperatures and to practice breathing consistently during the shock of the cold, we recommend taking cold showers or submerging yourself in a cold bath regularly.
In the shallows
Once swimming, you will feel the buoyancy of your wetsuit. Whilst in shallow water, we recommend that you try rolling onto your back and looking into the sky. This is a good way to catch your breath and rest in any depth of water.
However, when practicing this, it's crucial to be aware of your surroundings as if you’re not paying attention, currents may push you further out into the water than you initially intended.
Getting a feel for the buoyancy of your wetsuit is important, and should give you some confidence in the water. But testing it out in shallow water is safer just in case you feel dizziness.
Swimming along the shore or closer to land is advised for your first few swims. This will allow you to develop your open water swimming form and to grow your confidence in your own abilities in the water while keeping the safety of land nearby.
Sighting is used by open water swimmers, to stay on track and not veer off course. Due to a lack of side lanes, or markers, sighting is the main tool of navigation in open water. Identify something static on land that is in the direction you are heading. This could be something specific, such as a large tree, building or flag pole.
Every three strokes, when lifting your head out of the water for air, cast your gaze forward to make sure you are still heading towards your target. Lifting your head in this way may cause your legs to sink, so we recommend kicking slightly harder at this point, to avoid this. Once you have mastered sighting, you can reduce the frequency of checks, to once every six or seven strokes.
We all panic sometimes…but that’s okay
Panic can easily set in and take hold of your emotions. In particular, when surrounded by deep dark water your mind begins to overthink every bad possible scenario, whether it be a rational fear or not.
In order to keep calm, and avoid overreacting, keep your mind focused and occupied on the task at hand, and concentrate on each stroke as you are swimming. Some swimmers make small goals to stay focused. For instance, passing a particular landmark along the side. Other swimmers begin counting their strokes as a means of distraction from their immediate environment. Although distractions are good at keeping you calm, it is always important to remember the safety protocols and procedures.
Practice different methods of keeping your cool and staying focused. So that if you do give in to panic and hysteria, you know how to calm yourself down as needed. If the need arises, you are able to tread water, roll on your back or return to shallow water before continuing your swim. You will be able to enjoy and cherish your time swimming, if you are able to master your fears and learn to control your moments of panic.
Outdoor swimming technique
Technique is important when open water swimming. The right technique ensures you are most efficient in your movements and are not wasting energy with each stroke. Technique can also positively impact your speed and will help when you are panicking as it gives you something to fall back on in times of struggle.
Starting with your legs, aim to avoid kicking hard and fast, as this is counterintuitive. Instead, practice fluttering your legs, keeping them high in the water to reduce drag. Your arms should make forward reaching movements and should reset linearly along your side. Your arms should operate alternatively for the most part, other than in techniques such as butterfly and breaststroke, and in-sync with one another.
When conducting front crawl, work on breathing on either side, this way, if you are caught in choppy conditions, you are able to adapt to the situation and breathe on either side as is required. Practice several strokes whilst holding your breath in case you must do this in practice due to waves. We recommend working on your irregular breathing within the safety of a pool environment first before taking that technique to the open water.
Let's speak now about the different types of strokes. Front crawl is the most common, and most energy efficient stroke. There are other alternatives however, if front crawl does not agree with you, or you simply wish to expand on your options. Breaststroke and butterfly are different in the sense that your hands work in unison, however they can be more physically demanding. We must recommend against the use of backstroke, because this can be seen as a distress signal to lifeguards, and also, it can be harder to navigate this way.
You should focus your efforts on developing high stroke rates and building your bilateral strength to help you tackle challenging scenarios, such as issues around visibility or high winds. The swimming pool should be your practice area, this is where you should work on technique and endurance. Sighting should be practiced from the safety of a pool, and the sides should be used only when necessary as they will not be available on the open water. Work on strengthening your arms more so than legs when aiming to become a competent open water swimmer, as your legs are mostly used for balance.
Changing direction can be difficult in open water swimming, as there is no support in the form of a wall or a floor to push off from. Therefore, we recommend doing this in a pool situation, without the use of said assistance, first so as to get used to it.
The final tip we have around technique is to practice swimming with your eyes closed in a swimming pool. This way you are developing your ability to navigate without the ability to see. Which aims to mimic the conditions you may face in open water swimming, where visibility will be severely limited or absent entirely in murky water.
Open water racing
We know it can be a harrowing experience racing in open water for the first time. These tips and pointers should help you get started and have a good experience in your first race.
The location of your race is important, as there are differences between open water locations, whether that be a lake, river, or a sea race. Temperature of the water is important as it may determine your attire. Especially in a triathlon; if the water is warm, the swim may be tri-suit only. Something to bear in mind. If you are someone who prefers the buoyancy of other wetsuits for comfort this could be a problem. Most triathlons in the UK are wet-suit legal, however, there have been heat waves that have warmed water temperatures previously.
At the start of a race, there can be a lot of kicking and jostling for position. There will be lots of splashing and people thrashing when the gun fires. If you are inexperienced, we recommend staying at the back or to the sides to avoid the mayhem. Stay away from the congestion and take control of your surroundings. Set a goal and stick to it.
The length of the race is an important factor to consider. Races come in all different sizes, start small, in a race you feel you can comfortably complete, distance-wise. And work your way up incrementally to the longer races. Typically races vary between 1km to 80km, but there are races along the way, such as a 5km, 10km and 25km so there are milestones you can make.
When looking to turn in a group or a race, it can be tricky. Our recommendation is to stay by the outer edge whilst turning in an effort to reduce chances of someone swimming across you or your lane. A good tip is to visualise key moments of the race, such as potential congestion areas or tight turns, therefore you can be a step ahead when it comes to these points and you have a clear plan in your mind. This way you can also plan to avoid certain areas entirely if you so wish.
Before testing your skills in an open water setting, practice first in a swimming pool. This will boost your confidence and hone your technique. As with all things, you will improve with practice, and by improving your confidence will grow, it is a win win. By explaining topics such as warming up, dealing with stressful situations, safety protocols and racing we have given you a broad base understanding of open water swimming, of what you need, and what to expect. And by using the visualisation techniques we covered, you will be able to strategise a winning formula that works for you in almost any situation and at any racing event.
With all that we have covered, we are sure you are ready to take your first plunge. So what are you waiting for, stop reading and start swimming, you know what you need to do now, go and have fun…